The Ballad of Aunt LottieRena Priest
Will and I are 16. Will drives, I don’t. Our dad gives Will the keys and sends us to the store for spray paint for his buoys. At the hardware store a pimply-faced kid behind the paint counter slams his clipboard down. We look up in surprise and the boy says to the other boy, “You have to watch the Indians. They’ll steal anything.”
We leave without buying what we need and now our father will have to spend more gas money going back and forth on the long ride from the reservation to town. Later that night I watch an episode of 48 Hours about a white man who steals women from their families and keeps them in a bunker underground until he steals their lives. I fall asleep and in my dream I am watching white men in boats rounding up killer whales in a cove, taking the babies from their keening mothers. The dream changes and Will and I are on the city bus when we run into Lottie. This dream is a memory. I am happy to see Aunt Lottie again. She disappeared and nobody could ever get the police to look for her.
She used to come over as often as once a week. We called her Rez Santa because she would arrive bearing trash bags full of the latest fashions; everything that cost too much at the mall. She loved it when she saw that you liked something she’d picked out for you. She even swiped things on order. Taking a trip? She’d swipe you some fancy luggage. Throwing a party? She’d steal you a prime rib roast with all the fixins. She’d committed to memory the shoe, pant, shirt, and dress size of all her family and friends. She knew everyone’s style and kept them in mind when she gathered. “Gathering.” That’s what she called it, and that’s how she approached it, just like a pre-contact Indian strolling through the forest taking what she needed.
The malls have security guards to protect the goods, but the only thing watching over nature is a person’s awareness of how an ecosystem works. Take too much and there won’t be enough next time. Malls have a type of artificial ecosystem, too. She learned its ways in order to operate. Just like in the old days when a hunter fasted and bathed in mountain streams to smell like the landscape, she only wore the classiest clothes and made it so everything about her seemed expensive, even the way she smelled. Knowing how to look like she belonged was how she kept the racket going.
In the dream, on the bus, Aunt Lottie is decked out in a beautiful white wool suit.
“Why you riding the bus?” Will asks.
“Gotta go see about a car,” she says, and winks.
We suspect that she meant Gotta go steal a car.
“Hey Lottie? How come you steal all the time? Don’t you feel bad for stealing from the shops?” I ask.
Will kicks my ankle. But Aunt Lottie smiles and says, “Aw
Niecey someday you’ll understand. It goes back to the treaty. They made a promise in that treaty that we would be allowed to harvest in our usual and accustomed fishing, hunting, and harvesting grounds. But look, they’ve paved it all over and made it private property and now there’s nothing there to harvest but clothes and jewelry and fine home furnishings. You see?” She gestured out the window of the bus, then, after enough concrete had passed to make her point, she went on. “No more temxw, no more kelsip, no more alile or saski in the springtime. Have a pop tart, kid.
“Let me tell you something, our U&A—that’s what we call our usual and accustomed harvesting grounds—our U&A ran all the way from the Columbia River, up into the Frasier Valley. Vancouver, Washington, to Vancouver, B.C. I suppose I don’t need to tell you that the Columbia River and British Columbia are both named for that dirtbag Columbus, and both Vancouvers are named for that other scum, Captain Vancouver. You learn about the ‘Explorers’ yet?”
I shake my head yes.
“Explorers, my ass! Greedy men with ships is all they were. Don’t believe everything those teachers say. I bet you think they know it all. Do you think they know it all?”
I shake my head no.
“Good. Anyway, the xwenitems paved the whole thing over, so now this is how I hunt and gather. If they ain’t going to give us an education like they promised in the treaty, and if we can’t get decent, honest jobs because those are only for educated whites, then we got to make our own way. You understand? There’s a difference you know, between being smart and being educated.” She eyes me to make sure I am following.
“Do you know what the principal told the teachers at school? He said, ‘Don’t bother with the Indian kids ‘cause they can’t learn.’ And let me tell you, those teachers sure didn’t bother. And you know what? To hell with ‘em! Who says we can’t learn? Those fools at Sears still haven’t learned that chaining up the binoculars is just a show for the dummies, when they sell wire-snippers two aisles over. Who can’t learn, babe?”
We laugh together and then she says sternly, “Not to say that what I do is okay, and don’t you two ever do it. I know it’s wrong, and I know God is gonna punish me. But I help people, too.” She pulls the cord for the next stop.
“How else is some broke-ass little Indian kids going to be able to wear some fancy pants and feel good about themself when the whites go around rubbing our faces in what we don’t have? The haves and the have-nots. Someday you’ll see.” She looked away and continued. “Yeah, I’m a thief, but look at it another way, who’s the thief? They got the whole continent in exchange for some smallpox infected blankets.”
“You think about what I’m telling you. They tried to wipe us out completely, but here we are, so we won! You’re a smart kid,” she says, “You can learn. I expect you to work hard and get an education so you can help your people.” She pauses again. “Instead of being like me.” She sighs. “I don’t know. I’m not so bad though. God might forgive me. I hope so.”
The bus driver taps the breaks at her stop and the passengers shift forward and back as if to nod in agreement. The bus doors open, and she blows us a kiss. “Keep Winning!” she says and hops off.
I watch Aunty Lottie from the bus window as she walks down the sunlit sidewalk with her long black hair, wearing all white and glowing like an angel. The dream changes again, and I am out fishing with Will. He is picking the net when a killer whale swims to the boat. She speaks, “They’ll steal anything.”
There is an explosion and we look up to see boats chasing a pod of orcas through the pass, herding the young ones away from their pod. The dream changes and we see white men coming for Indian children. The children cry as they’re put onto a truck and taken from their parents—away to boarding school.
The dream changes and we are staring at an orca from behind aquarium glass. When our eyes meet, we both see her endless days of aquarium life; the buckets of fish slopped to her at intervals.
“Have a Pop Tart,” says a disembodied voice, and she opens her maw like a baby bird for 50 years.
We see her loneliness in that stunted world. And then we see what seems to be another whale, but somehow it isn’t.
“It can’t sing because it’s not real,” comes the voice again. “None of this is real; it’s just a concrete fishbowl.”
The orca swims away and when she swims back, she is Lottie, but somehow, she isn’t. She presses her palm to the glass, “Keep winning,” she says and I wake.
Rena Priest is a Poet and an enrolled member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. She has been appointed to serve as Washington State’s Poet Laureate for the term of April 2021-2023. She is the recipient of the Vadon Foundation Fellowship (2020), and an Allied Arts Foundation Professional Poets Award (2020). She has attended residencies at Hedgebrook, Mineral School, and Hawthornden Castle. Her debu collection, Patriarchy Blues, received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her second collection, Sublime Subliminal is available from Floating Bridge Press. Her individual poems and non-fiction pieces are featured at Poets.org, Poetry Northwest, High Country News, YES! Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a National Geographic Explorer (2018-2020) and a Jack Straw Writer (2019). She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.